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November, 6th 2020

Does ‘sustainability’ mean being environmentally engaged, socially conscious or economically innovative? With one eye trailed on past and one looking to the future, Mark Wade discusses the origin of the concept, while sharing his views on businesses and individual commitment as a source of change.

Words By Elisa Felici 

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When we think of ‘sustainability’, it is most unlikely that Gro Harlem Brundtland comes to mind – the Norwiginan politician who, from 1983 to 1987, chaired the Brundtland Commission on Sustainable Development, the first UN Commission debating sustainability across nations. In 1987, the Brundtland Commission issued a report which for the first time defined the meaning and goals of sustainable development: “Meeting the development needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their development needs“. 

According to Mark Wade, the truest meaning of sustainability lies in this definition. Originally, Mark is a chemist. After having worked at Shell for thirty years, Mark continues to engage with multiple agencies and organizations on issues of management and sustainability. To Mark, social, economic and environmental sectors were meant as one by the 1987 definition. However, what got across was the idea of sustainability as three separate entities.

“Sustainability is not an economic, social or environmental silo, it’s a matrix! If you’re serious about adopting sustainable practices, you have to integrate all three dimensions into your thinking”

Mark was first faced with the social implications of sustainability when he worked for Shell. Applying sustainability measures requires a double engagement: one where we maintain and use what we have, while projecting what our future needs might be. Crucially, a true sustainable approach cannot ignore how society functions and what society wants. 

In 1997, Shell was recovering from some reputation issues over the company’s environmental and human rights performance. To Mark, what initiated the crisis was Shell’s incapacity to cope with “society’s changing expectations“. The company, as Mark tells us, had been incredibly successful for decades, so isolated in its own success not to realise how society’s expectations were moving on with technology”. To reconnect with what society believed was “proper” corporate behaviour, Mark was requested to set up a Sustainability Development Group, where Shell’s businesses and society’s needs could find common ground. Sustainability needed to be incorporated within Shell’s operations. The company’s commitment and financial decisions had to equally consider environmental and social aspects to ensure responsible decisions were being made. Shell’s Sustainability Report, the first ever sustainability report to exist at a corporate level, was sorely needed to communicate these changes.

“We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were the first multinational company to produce a sustainability report”

Sustainability is ‘social’ in the sense that it cannot neglect our expectations and communal or individual involvement. “Sustainability and society’s expectations can’t stand still. The standards from 50 years ago are no longer the right standards for today,” says Mark. We need to be more environmentally responsible, more understanding of the economic impact and more equitable on how we do things. 

What is interesting about Mark’s argument is his emphasis on the role of businesses. As he argues, sustainability is fundamentally ‘rooted in economics’. “Economic systems are failing because there’s a straight-line trajectory of growth and consumption without any feedback loops to improve their sustainability,” says Mark. Accordingly, the Brundtland definition becomes a statement of inspiration to better understand the way our economic infrastructure works. What the definition originally implies is that real sustainable development relies on the creation of a responsible economic engine that ensures future needs are catered to as they are today. As Mark expresses that at the center of the sustainable engine, we need conscious businesses. “Businesses can innovate to be solutions to global problems, rather than being the problem themselves. This understanding provides a great deal of engagement and hope for today’s businesses as fundamental creators of change and innovation, not just profit

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Surprisingly, if we turn any sustainable development challenge into an economic matter we realise we are more than capable of handling sustainability, just as we handle the economy.

When we are tackling the challenges of sustainability, the impacts we are all trying to achieve are the same, they are just on different scales. As Mark eloquently puts it, “It’s fractal.” Whether you are a small family-based company or a global fashion house, “the challenge is exactly the same. It’s exactly the same things you have to think about. It’s just on a different scale”.

Photography by AS R from Pexels

Iracambi’s logo, a sustainable forestry and agricultural research station in Brazil which Mark supports, illustrates Mark’s point while inspiring us all to take action ‘within our scale’. The logo is inspired by Brazilian folklore. This particular story starts during a dreadful forest fire, where a hummingbird flies towards the fire with a tiny drop of water in its beak. As the animals see him fly, they laugh: “What are you doing? What are you doing?” Unphased, the hummingbird replies: “This is what I’m taking to help put the fire out.” “That’s ridiculous. It’s just one drop of water” the animals retort. “But that’s all I can do,” says the hummingbird. We are all hummingbirds somewhere on the scale. On a global scale, Shell was the first amongst the largest corporations to start doing things differently, back in 1997. Today, as we operate in the fashion industry, Staiy is a hummingbird taking action on its own scale, making a difference.

“I deeply believe in the potential power of businesses to create good in this world. And that’s why I so admire what Staiy is doing together with leading organizations and companies.”

The fashion industry’s wake-up call is now. This vibrant and exciting industry faces today the same challenges Shell faced more than twenty years ago. A company’s culture cannot be changed overnight. And that is why Staiy exists. We want to encourage this transformation within companies and supply chains by partnering up with them to share our same values and desires. 

As voiced by Mark, the 1997 Shell teaches companies a fundamental lesson: ‘[To] keep in touch with society’s expectations and be ready to anticipate them and meet those expectations.’ As we grasp sustainability’s true meaning, our engagement with this momentous issue can grow stronger and deeper to observe the environment, society and the economy as a whole again.